Topsoil health on slippery slope

CLARESHOLM, Alta. — About one tonne of topsoil is lost for every one to two tonnes of grain produced on prairie fields.

That is Nicole Masters’ assessment of soil-loss severity. The agro-ecologist and biological education specialist from New Zealand gives “soil schools” to farmers and ranchers as she seeks to improve soil health and by extension, animal health and food quality.

“We’re losing … about half the amount of soil that we’re producing in terms of grain that we’re harvesting. I don’t think that’s something to be proud of,” Masters told those at a May 23 soil school organized by the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association.

“We’re on a declining slope here in Canada and it’s the same all over the world.”

Masters is a proponent of regenerative agriculture. She prefers that term to the oft-mentioned term “sustainable.”

Sustainable means maintenance of the status quo, said Masters. Regeneration seeks to stop the degeneration of soil by repairing disturbance events, minimizing harmful inputs and building resilience through microbes and carbon.

She had praise for prairie farmers’ attention to soil health improvement.

“I think in Canada what we’re seeing is the fastest uptake of soil health. They’ve done a really great job with extension services here,” she said in an interview.

“What I’m seeing is, producers know that the system is not working and they’re spending more and just being more vulnerable. So they’re looking for other tools.

“If you’re not looking at soil health, what are you doing as a producer?”

Native grasslands on the Prairies, considered a major advantage by ranchers, are not exempt from soil degradation even if untouched except by grazing, Masters said, and in many cases their production of nutritious livestock feed could be improved with some intervention.

“It depends on your goals. Some people want to conserve their native lands and you’ve got to re-member they’re not in a natural state. You won’t find any natural state in Canada. It’s all disturbed.

“We’ve removed the natural grazing patterns. We’ve removed how animals used to move across landscapes. We’ve got fences. Fencing is a disturbance. Those landscapes aren’t actually being managed optimally.

“Some people are doing a better job than others … but you’ve had a couple of hundred years of degradation in between.”

If the goal is to produce beef, ranchers should realize it might require more than what native grassland can provide to cattle, Masters said.

“We’re seeing a lot of deficiencies in the rangeland. We’re seeing a lot of deficiencies, major nutrient deficiencies in grass. Even with working with people that are doing your adaptive planned, managed grazing, (they) have still got pretty big issues that they need to look at in terms of forage quality.”

Grazing, whether managed or not, extracts nutrients from the landscape and gradually reduces soil’s ability to absorb and move water.

“The whole ecosystem is a little bit broken. In some places it’s really broken,” she said. “You have to figure out what’s needed to give it a jumpstart.”

Getting soil tested is the first step, though that is seldom done by ranchers on either their tame or native grasslands.

Digging holes and observing the soil and its contents is also instructive.

“People aren’t testing here or in the U.S. … so they don’t know what they’re dealing with. So then you’ve got to find another way to support animal health, through mineral licks and salt blocks. And you can do that forever. It’s fine. But the soil resource is still degrading.”

Andy Hart of Willabar Ranch near Claresholm, Alta., offered two sites on his property for exploration by workshop participants.

One site has been in perennial grass pasture for more than 50 years and has never had commercial fertilizer. It was in rest-rotation grazing for the past five years and before that was continuously grazed in summer.

On the second site, perennial grass pasture was replaced in 2007 with irrigated barley, followed by six years of mixed legume grass hay. In 2015, the hay was replaced with a cocktail mix of forage turnip, forage radish, hairy vetch, crimson clover, Italian ryegrass, forage peas and oats.

Masters’ analysis of the two sites showed the latter field had better soil quality, though more could be done to enhance it.

That was also Hart’s assessment. He was able to greatly increase the number of grazing days on the 35-acre field. It fed 220 cow-calf pairs for nine days last July and for several more days of swath grazing in fall.

Hart, the vice-chair of the forage association, said the soil school is useful.

“Like most people, I really didn’t know what was going on below the surface, so it was interesting for me,” he said while examining soil in his field.

“I’m just starting out on this path. Compared to what I was doing five years ago, I’ve already made a lot of changes but obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement. My goal is to leave the soil better than when I got it. Apparently some of the things I’m doing are working,” said Hart.

“Over time, when we see what’s happened in a brief 10 years, I’m kind of excited. I wish I was 27 instead of 57. Another 30 years to work with it would be kind of nice.”

Masters has analyzed soil problems in several countries, and has advocated such treatments as seawater, milk and humic acid.

Like many North Americans, soil has constipation, indigestion and diarrhea, said Masters. Herbicides, fungicides, tillage, overgrazing, compaction and monoculture are among the issues.

Healthy soil has vast amounts of microbes, fungi, carbon and a wide array of nutrients.

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